When I was growing up in lawn-quilted northeast Portland, Oregon, in the 1980s, going out for Mexican food usually meant a trip outside our middle class neighborhood of two-story bungalows to the more commercial highways on the outskirts of town.
The restaurants were usually drab on the outside but erupted with color, music, and light inside. Back in those days it seems, hosts dressed like mariachi musicians, and waitresses donned fluffy red, white, and green skirts. Piñatas, donkey-shaped and papered pink, clung to the ceilings, and the music was so twangy and ranchero, it made you want to sway more than dance. We settled into the spacious vinyl booths and watched as the adults ordered salt-rimmed margaritas served in glasses the size of cereal bowls. Waitresses carrying plates, still scorching from the salamanders, dropped them on our table like hot bricks, each full of refried beans and cheese that melted like molten lava to the furthest edges of the plate. "Don't touch!" they always warned but didn’t need to. We knew the drill.
My brother and I in the early days, and later my step-sister, all within a year apart and each just as goofy as the other, sporting pimples and acid-washed jean jackets with our collars flipped up, set aside our petty squabbles and united, without disagreement, from the first crunch of the piping hot basket of fried tortilla chips, dipped in cool, spicy salsa (that always looked like gazpacho) to the last forkful of beans with cheese strung between the plate and our teeth. The towel-sized flour tortillas, enveloping the lard-laden beans, were as soft and chewy as dinner rolls hot from the oven on Thanksgiving day.
It didn't matter if we ordered a chimichanga, burrito, or an enchilada, what came out always looked like a hot heap of deliciousness. I remained faithful to enchiladas. Dependable and filling, the tortilla, meat, and cheese drenched in a thick, piquant sauce always kept me wanting more no matter how tight my teenage pants got.
This recipe for enchilada suizas, inspired by a dish served at El Coyote in Los Angeles (and shared in Saveur), is as rich and delicious as those I ate growing up. My version employs a slightly hotter pepper (serrano) and a sweeter onion (shallot), and uses a pressure cooker to prepare a whole chicken and render freshly made chicken stock, adding flavor and freshness to the dish. For the home cook who intends to reheat leftovers, cooking the chicken fresh and using the meat right away (rather than buying or adding pre-cooked meat) keeps the chicken enchiladas moist, tender, and fresh for longer.
1 whole, 3-pound chicken
1-1/4 cups of chicken stock from the cooked chicken
1-3/4 lb. tomatillos, husks removed and washed thoroughly
8 cloves garlic, unpeeled
3 serrano peppers, stemmed and seeded
5 medium-sized shallots, split in two if they contain cloves, skins on
2 cups roughly chopped cilantro, plus sprigs for garnish
1 cup sour cream
Juice from 1 lime juice
2 tsp. ground cumin
1/2 tsp. salt
3 tbsp. canola or olive oil
1 onion, diced
10 (10-inch) white flour tortillas
2 cups shredded Monterey Jack
Place the chicken in the pressure cooker with two cups of water and a bay leaf (if you have an extra carrot and onion, quarter those and add them for extra flavor). Close and lock the lid and bring the pressure cooker up to pressure. Cook for 22 minutes on high.
Meanwhile, position an oven rack in the middle of the oven and turn the broiler on high. Place the tomatillos, garlic, serranos, and shallots on a broiler pan and broil until blackened on top, about 8 - 10 minutes. Let cool slightly, then peel the garlic and shallots (I also peel off the blackened parts of the tomatillo). Transfer the vegetables to a blender. Add one cup of the chicken stock (from the pressure cooker), chopped cilantro, one-third of the sour cream, the lime juice, cumin, salt, and pepper; purée until smooth. Transfer enchilada sauce to a bowl; set aside.
Once the chicken is done, release the pressure. Remove the bird from the pot (reserving the stock), place it on a large cutting board. Using heat-proof kitchen gloves, remove the meat from the bones, shredding the meat as you go with your fingers.
Heat the oil in a large skillet over medium-high heat. Saute the diced onion until soft, 4–5 minutes. Stir in about two cups of the tomatillo sauce, the shredded chicken, and the remaining one-fourth cup chicken stock (if needed) so the filling is moist but not soupy.
Heat the oven to 375 degrees. Pour 1 cup enchilada sauce in the bottom of a 9" x 13" baking dish. Roll each tortilla first in the sauce and then stuff it with the chicken filling, dividing the chicken evenly among tortillas. Roll the tortillas tightly around the chicken filling and arrange the tortilla rolls seam-side down in the baking dish. Pour the remaining sauce over rolls, and cover evenly with Monterey Jack cheese. Bake until the cheese is melted and sauce is bubbly, 18–20 minutes. Garnish with cilantro sprigs and the remaining sour cream.
In my memory, I’m seven and playing in the front yard of our Portland, Oregon, home with my eight-year-old brother. I extend my hand, clutching a dandelion puff, and thrust it in front of him. “Make a wish.” He closes his eyes, draws in a breath, and blows hard so the seeds, along with his spit, spray across our lawn, already moist from the morning sprinkler and kept trim and green by our Dad, who was always handy with the Roundup. Even drenched in herbicide, the lawn sprouts new dandelions the next summer.
Years later, I spotted dandelion at the grocery store, wedged in between the watercress and parsley. I eyed the bundle of spiny leaves for some time, thinking back to those Roundup summers. Clearly, they were meant to be eaten, which hadn't dawned on me before. They struck me as the kind of edible that might have been popular during The Great Depression, where anything sprouting from dirt that didn’t kill you would be snatched up and stirred into the nightly soup pot. Nettles, chickweed, grasshoppers, why not?
More recently, Paul and I cozied up to a bar at one of Washington D.C.’s top restaurants. I peered over the menu and spotted dandelion, offered up in a salad married to a carmelized pear. When the plate arrived, I unfolded my white linen napkin and pushed around the leaves suspiciously before spearing a few into my mouth. The astringent greens stood up brightly next to the sugary pear. It was tasty, but didn’t leave me running with garden shears to the nearest weedy park.
After creating this creamy dandelion sauce, inspired by a Yotam Ottolenghi recipe that employs watercress instead of dandelion, my mild fascination has turned to an obsession. I prefer the dandelion, in part because I can always find it organic and in part because it reminds me of those summers with my brother. Chocked with mustard seed and garlic and blended with luscious, full-fat sour cream, this sauce transforms the bitter dandelion into a flavor-packed accompaniment to salmon, steak, or just plain lentils for a vegetarian lunch.
Salmon with Black Lentils and Dandelion Cream
Salmon (for two large portions or three medium portions)
3/4 pound salmon, skin on, cut from the tail (the tail has few or no bones)
Salt and pepper
Heat the oven to 375 degrees. Place the salmon in a glass baking dish. Coat it thinly with olive oil and season both sides generously with salt and pepper. Place it skin side up in the oven for about 18 minutes or until the salmon is cooked through but still has a tinge of pink in the center.
Braised black lentils
1 cup lentils, rinsed
2-1/2 cups chicken or vegetable stock*
1/2 yellow onion, finely diced
1 small carrot, finely diced
1 small celery stalk, finely diced
2 cloves garlic, minced (if you’re in a big hurry, you can ditch the carrot, onion, and celery, and just add the garlic)
2 tablespoons olive oil
Salt and pepper to taste
In a medium-sized saucepan, heat the olive oil until hot but not smoking. Add the garlic, onions, carrots, and celery and sauté about 3 – 4 minutes. Add lentils, and stir for 30 seconds, and then add the chicken stock. Season generously with salt and pepper. Simmer, uncovered, for about 30 – 35 minutes until the lentils are soft (if they dry out, add more liquid). Taste to adjust seasoning again before serving.
*I find that the amount of liquid really varies depending on the level of heat and the diameter of the pan. I usually keep adjusting until the liquid is evaporated and the lentils are cooked through and tender but not mushy.
1-1/4 cup chopped dandelion leaves
1 heaping tablespoon of grainy mustard
1 heaping tablespoon of smooth, extra strong Dijon mustard
2 tablespoons milk
1 tablespoon olive oil
1/2 cup of full fat sour cream (low fat sour cream is terrible in this recipe); add slightly more sour cream if you like a creamier sauce with fewer bitter notes)
2 garlic cloves, blanched in boiling water for 30 seconds
Salt to taste (about 1/4 teaspoon)
In a Cuisinart or blender, blitz all ingredients until creamy and smooth. Taste and adjust seasoning or mustard level if necessary.
If I had an Italian grandma, I imagine that wine-braised spare ribs would be her signature recipe. Her heavy arms would command a large wooden spoon, stirring the succulent ribs as the meat falls off the bone. Her apron, smudged with tomato paste and parsley juice, would fit snugly around a plus-sized cotton dress. Her back would be ox strong from years of hand rolling fettuccine pasta into paper thin sheets. She would kiss my cheeks with anchovy breath and sneak sips of homemade limoncello in the afternoons. I would sneak sips of her sips.
And then, my adorable nonna would succumb to years of my pleading, and pass down her secret recipe to me.
Instead, I discovered this dish on the web, and relied on my inner nonna to refine and create my own version, sneaking sips of sangiovese along the way. This dish can be cooked in a Dutch oven or in a pressure cooker. I've done both, and the pressure cooker by far turns out the most tender, delicious meat. This recipe is geared toward that method.
Italian Braised Pork Spare Ribs
2.5 pounds pork spare ribs, cut into two-rib pieces
1 onion, diced
2 small carrots, diced
2 small celery stalks, diced
4 cloves of garlic, minced
1 large bunch of basil, minced
3 sprigs of thyme
1-1/4 cups tomato sauce
1 cup red wine
3 tablespoons olive oil
¼ cup water
Pinch of chili flakes
1 small bunch of parsley, minced (for garnish)
Salt to taste
Heat olive oil in an 8-quart pressure cooker over medium flame until hot but not smoking. Add the chili flakes and let simmer for 30 seconds. Then add the garlic and basil and simmer for for another 30 seconds to minute. Add the diced onion, carrots, and celery, and simmer until soft, about five minutes. Add the rest of the ingredients except the parsley.
Secure the lid onto the pressure cooker and increase the flame to high, bringing it to pressure until the pressure indicator pops up. Cook on high pressure for 30 minutes. Use the quick release method to release the steam from the unit. Taste for seasoning. If the sauce has too much liquid, reduce for another 10 - 15 minutes without the lid. Discard any bones that have separated from the meat. Serve on a bed or polenta or with crusty bread. Garnish with minced parsley.
During my short stint living in central Mexico in the mid-1990s, Oaxaca topped my list of places to visit. Sadly for me, a revolutionary leftist uprising just south of Oaxaca in Chiapas prompted tourists to vacate the region in droves. I was left to focus on central and northern Mexico, busing from Guadalajara to Zacatecas, slurping steaming bowls of pozole at open-air markets, instead of sampling the foods of southern Mexico.
I was a college exchange student, kept by a host family in the foothills of the Sierra Madre in the mid-sized town of Queretaro, where I studied Spanish and the Mexican Revolution (Viva Mexico!). I ate taquitos, hand-pounded gorditas, and watermelon aquas frescas at the local markets. During that time, I never once encountered a caper. In my mind, the small, dark green berries were destined for the tuna salads of France or the puttanescas of Italy.
So when I recently found a recipe for Oaxacan chicken in caper sauce, I lifted my eyebrows skeptically. A Mexican caper sauce was completely novel to me. Adding cinnamon and cloves was even wilder. I was unsure that briny capers and the spicy-sweet ground cloves and cinnamon would gel under the acidic umbrella of the tomatillo.
What I found was that the combo works in the same way that jazz piano might jibe with classical violin, producing a vibrant and cool new harmony. And roasted tomatillos provide just the melody to make the jam session work.
Perhaps the Spanish conquistadors brought the flowering capparis spinosa to Mexico or perhaps it has always been there. Either way, I learned recently that the caper berry, salted and pickled, has a tradition in Mexican cuisine, especially in seafood dishes of Veracruz. It seems fitting that Oaxaca, the rugged home to 16 indigenous tribes with their own native tongues, would invent the aromatic, varied, and almost medicinal blend of capers, cinnamon, and cloves.
Oaxacan Chicken with Caper Sauce and Queso Fresco Polenta
12 pieces of skinless, bone-in chicken (thighs or a mix of thighs and drumsticks)
4 cloves of garlic, skins on
4 large shallots, sliced in half with skins on
1 cup capers
½ teaspoon ground cloves
10 tomatillos, peeled and washed
1 teaspoon cinnamon
1 teaspoon dried oregano
1 cup of pitted green olives
2 tablespoons pickled jalapeños
1 small bunch of cilantro leaves (optional)
For the polenta (see below):
1 cup Bob's Red Mill polenta
1/4 cup (rounded) diced queso fresco
Salt to taste
Preheat the oven broiler to “high.” Line a roasting pan with foil and broil the peeled tomatillos and the skin-on garlic and shallots for eight minutes, then remove the pan and rotate the tomatillos so they get color on the bottom side and broil for four more minutes. Remove the pan from the oven and let the vegetables cool. Then, skin the garlic and shallots.
In a Cuisinart with a blade attachment, add the roasted tomatillos, peeled shallots and garlic, ground cloves, cinnamon, oregano, and capers. Blend the mix until it becomes a smooth sauce.
In a large Dutch oven, heat two tablespoons of olive oil and pour in the tomatillo sauce. Let simmer for about two minutes and then nestle the pieces of chicken into the sauce (some of the meat will still be exposed but the chicken will give up a good amount of liquid after about 10 minutes). Cover the Dutch oven partially and simmer on low for 30 minutes, occasionally stirring and rotating the chicken pieces so they are fully immersed in the sauce. Add the green olives and simmer for another 10 - 15 minutes.
Meanwhile cook the polenta according to the package instructions, until thick and creamy, adding the queso fresco halfway through the cooking time. Spoon the polenta on the plate and top it with chicken pieces, caper sauce, jalapeños, and cilantro.
I fell in love with ropa vieja, a staple of Cuban cuisine, years after I took a trip to Havana. After tasting the slow-braised chicken and peppers served with sweet fried plantain back in the States, I could see how the flavors could originate in a place as culturally vibrant as Cuba.
To my surprise, during my trip, I found simpler, less remarkable fare. The tastiest thing I ate the week I traveled there as a journalist, more than 15 years ago, was served the morning after I arrived by Mercedes, a woman with shoulder length silver hair who ran a ‘casa particular’ or special house for tourists. She served a plate of peppery scrambled eggs, perfectly moist and gooey, on fine China from the Batista era. She poured orange juice from a vintage whiskey bottle and brought me a teacup filled with strong black coffee. I sat in her dim living room with heavy curtains drawn to keep the sun from overheating the home, and ate on a vinyl, spill-proof tablecloth.
I lingered over those eggs, and the heat of the hot pepper sauce mingling with the sweet orange juice on my tongue before heading out for the day, knowing that the city sites may dazzle me more than my next plate of food. I wondered if the lack of culinary highlights had to do with the economic embargo, strangling its resources, or if maybe low wages held back a burgeoning cadre of chefs. Or perhaps, on my Lonely Planet budget, I just missed the good stuff.
Ropa vieja is a dish that matches the pace of the island: slow, like the sultry walks of young couples along the Malecon, Havana's sea wall, as the sun sinks into the Gulf. Preparing it, even with my speedy pressure cooker, takes several hours. It requires cooking the meat (beef or chicken), and then braising it into ropa vieja (“old clothes") in tomatoes, onions, peppers, and spices for another hour. The pressure cooker method has the dual purpose of cooking an entire chicken with fall-off-the-bone meat in about 25 minutes while also producing homemade chicken stock, which enhances the ropa vieja flavor. The result is everything I imagined Cuban food would be during my trip, if only I had found the right place.
Chicken and stock
1 large chicken (about 4 pounds)
1 carrot, roughly chopped
1 stalk of celery, roughly chopped
1 onion, quartered
1 tablespoon of peppercorns
1 cinnamon stick
1 bay leaf
2 cups water
½ teaspoon salt
Place all ingredients in a large pressure cooker. Close and lock the lid and bring the pressure cooker up to pressure. Cook for 22 minutes on high. Let the pressure release naturally for 5 minutes and then release the rest. Remove the chicken (reserving the stock at the bottom of the pot), let cool, and then remove the meat from the bones, shredding the meat as you go with your fingers.
Meat from one pressure-cooked chicken, pulled from the bones and shredded (see above)
1-1/2 cups reserved stock from the pressure-cooked chicken
2 tablespoons olive oil
3 Cubanelle peppers, thinly sliced
3 Anaheim peppers, thinly sliced
1 large red onion, thinly sliced
1 teaspoon onion powder
1 teaspoon garlic powder
2 tablespoons oregano
3 tablespoons paprika
1 pinch cayenne
1 pinch ground cloves
1 tsp salt
½ tsp pepper
2 bay leaves
2 tsp honey
1-1/2 tablespoons sherry vinegar
1-1/2 cups chopped Pomi (or canned) tomatoes in their juices
Stock from pressure cooker pan (about 1 – 1-1/2 cup)
1-1/2 cup whole green olives (preferably Sicilian Castelvetrano green olives)
2 tablespoons capers
1 (or more) ripe plantain or slightly green banana, split lengthwise and fried in butter until golden brown (a cast iron pan works great for this)
In a large pot, heat the olive oil over a medium flame until hot. Add the onions and peppers and saute until soft. Add the onion powder, garlic powder, oregano, paprika, ground cloves, and bay leaves, and stir and let simmer for two minutes. Add the chicken and tomatoes and salt and pepper. Simmer on the stove top for 40 minutes. Add the green olives, capers, sherry vinegar, and honey, and simmer for another five minutes. Serve with the fried plantains.
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